Constructivism and a multi-faceted “obviously existing reality”: Why post-modernism fails?

Originally published at The Benfell Blog. You can comment here or there.

So I’m on winter break—and apparently permanently unemployed—but never fear, for I have a backlog of books to read so huge that I’ve had to shelve many of the unread books anyway because particularly with a cat prowling about, a stack would be toppled. But there are a few books on my urgent reading list. And it turns out I have another one by Walter Truett Anderson1 to deal with.

Arguably I should have read this one before The Future of the Self, also by this author,2 because in the preface to Reality Isn’t What It Used To be, Anderson gets to the nub of my problem with post-modernists:

On one side are the objectivists, who see the human mind as capable of more or less accurately, more or less impersonally, mirroring external nonhuman reality; on the other side, the constructivists hold that what we call the “real world” is an ever changing social creation.

The constructivists—whose thinking runs close to my own, and to the main themes of this book—say we do not have a “God’s eye” view of nonhuman reality, never have had, never will have. They say we live in a symbolic world, a social reality that many people construct together and yet experience as the objective “real world.” And they tell us the earth is not a single symbolic world, but rather a vast universe of “multiple realities,” because different groups of people construct different stories, and because different languages embody different ways of experiencing life. So, according to the constructivist view, people may have not only different political opinions and religious beliefs, but different ideas of such basic matters as personal identity, time, and space. (pp. x-xi)

One of the very easy ways to build a false dichotomy is to conflate multiple issues, so you can’t just agree on one issue, you have to agree on a whole range of issues. And that’s just what’s happening here:

  • A “God’s eye” view or a partial perspective of reality?

  • A physical reality or a language/symbolic/socially constructed reality?

We can’t just ignore the idea of a “God’s eye” view because it is at the heart of positivism—the dominant paradigm in science since the beginning of the 17th Century.3 But it’s pretty much a no-brainer that we only see what’s immediately around us. What I’m not so clear on from either The Future of the Self or (yet) Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be, is whether Anderson recognizes—as feminists most certainly do—how social location affects one’s view of reality, for example, how the privileged can see a world of many more opportunities than can members of subaltern groups.

But where I differ from the constructivists is in their placement of language, symbolism, and social construction at the heart of reality. I agree that this is important, but I draw from complexity theory4 5 6 that the notion of a partial perspective actually mirrors a partial physical reality—entire ecosystems at varying levels of complexity in which each of us and each of our various social groupings fit in. So for me, physical reality is very important, and even though I may not accurately perceive the molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, and whatever else that make up reality as I experience it, the features of that reality go beyond symbolism or abstraction; instead, the features of reality are patterns which are as important if not more so than the components which make up those patterns.

Post-modernists’ failure to incorporate the importance of patterns in their thinking was something I spotted in The Future of the Self. While Reality Isn’t What It used To Be is an older book, I’m guessing that it is this profound failure that ultimately leads them to solipsism and undermines their sensitivity to what Pauline Marie Rosenau referred to as an “obviously existing reality” that isn’t abstract, isn’t a fantasy for those who face ongoing existential threats.7

  • 1. Anderson, Walter Truett, Reality Isn’t What It Used To be (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990).
  • 2. Anderson, Walter Truett, The Future of the Self: Exploring the Post-Identity Society (New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1997).
  • 3. Mazlish, Bruce, The Uncertain Sciences, Transaction Ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2007).
  • 4. Capra, Fritjof, The Web of Life (New York: Anchor, 1997).
  • 5. Macy, Joanna, Mutual Causality in Buddhism and General Systems Theory (Delhi, India: Sri Satguru, 1991).
  • 6. Morin, Edgar, On Complexity (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2008).
  • 7. Rosenau, Pauline Marie, Post-modernism and the Social Sciences (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1992).

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